All Blacks set for drastic overhaul under new leadership of Scott Robertson
Sea change in the form of Scott Robertson’s eccentric new era will soon envelope the All Blacks. Just as the pre-World Cup timing of his national head coaching anointment shatters long-standing New Zealand rugby tradition, so too does Robertson’s promise to break the mould when he assumes charge seven months from now.
Nothing in the combative rugby union arena is ever given or guaranteed. Robertson, known as Razor for his try-scoring celebrations, knows this notion well from his playing days as a loose forward who savoured 23 Tests for the All Blacks. Off the field, Robertson’s highly successful coaching transition from Sumner, the seaside grassroots Christchurch club, to Canterbury and the Crusaders, charts a similar script.
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Twice passed over for the All Blacks head coaching role in the last four years, first following the 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat and again when incumbent coach Ian Foster saved his job with an upset triumph at Ellis Park last August, Robertson has been forced to be patient.
Robertson has forged an 83.2% coaching win record that includes 10 titles – six with the Crusaders – yet he could barely believe his moment finally arrived when he was officially unveiled as the All Blacks successor-in-waiting last week.
“I said ‘get the pen in my hand!’ – that marked a big moment for me,” an emotional Robertson said at New Zealand Rugby’s Wellington headquarters an hour after signing an unprecedented four-year contract as the All Blacks head coach.
“I stayed in the fight, and here I am now. I never thought I’d walk away as such but you start to look at options. I made it pretty clear it was my last year with the Crusaders and I wanted to become an international coach. I’m pretty loyal as a player and a coach. This is something I’ve worked hard for.”
Once he navigates one final Super Rugby season where he seeks a seventh successive title with the Crusaders, and the All Blacks complete their tilt at World Cup redemption in France later this year, Robertson’s promotion will commence.
The exuberant, infectious surfer from Mount Maunganui will then attempt to ride test rugby’s turbulent, unpredictable wave. Some days that wave produces smooth breaking barrels. More often than not, though, in an increasingly competitive landscape, it leaves broken boards and battered dreams by unceremoniously dumping competitors without warning.
Robertson has, indeed, earned his chance to lead the All Blacks. His compelling domestic record suggests he boasts the requisite breadth of credentials required to negotiate the significant step up in expectations, scrutiny and level of opposition. Yet no one knows for sure how his tenure will transpire. That is the beauty of sport, after all.
New Zealand Rugby must manage an awkward transition phase and confront soured relationships with the existing All Blacks coaching team
What we can deduce, however, is that everything about Robertson represents fundamental change. Every aspect of the All Blacks – from the coaching staff to the wider management, culture and conservative public interface – is set for a drastic overhaul.
Robertson’s assistants are yet to be appointed but he is certain to clean house. His new broom is expected to feature All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan, his former righthand man at the Crusaders, Blues head coach Leon MacDonald and Crusaders assistant Scott Hansen. That team will launch fresh philosophies on how the game should be played, how the All Blacks should be run while embracing a revamped vision each year.
With Foster, experienced assistant Joe Schmidt and long-serving mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka confirmed to move on after the World Cup, and a host of other staff expected to follow, Robertson will instigate the most far-reaching shift the All Blacks have seen since Sir Graham Henry replaced John Mitchell 19 years ago.
As it has throughout his seven years at the Crusaders, Robertson’s exuberant personality will evolve into the All Blacks epicentre.
In an age where promotion is king, where private investment demands all-access content and streaming services Netflix and Amazon crave sporting documentaries, Robertson is sure to be a willing, engaging figurehead on that front.
As rugby struggles to retain relevance among New Zealand teenage males in particular an unspoken optimism exists that Robertson’s contrasting approach to dyed in the wool tradition will help recapture attention there, too.
Robertson’s character sure is unique. Look no further than his preparations for a 1997 pre-season game, when he draped his Crusaders jersey over a chair in his room facing a wall socket with the power switch in an attempt to channel the electricity into his jersey.
With the All Blacks, there is no suggestion he will rein in his authentic self.
“My parents always said ‘be yourself, son’. I remember that catchphrase growing up,” Robertson said. “That’s who I am. I can always get better in different areas but what I know now is I can bring energy to a group, I can connect people, I have great vision. I enjoy what I do, how I do it and the people I work with – so you’ll get me.”
For all Robertson’s entertaining qualities the weight of a nation that rests on the All Blacks dictates the public will, however, demand substance over style, results over rhetoric.
His notorious break-dancing celebrations won’t be sighted without silverware. Should success not continue to flow at test level, the enormity of the task will quickly become apparent as the walls cave in. Many former All Blacks coaches have been there.
In many respects, Robertson must start again. A traditional post-World Cup player exodus will strip established experience, particularly in the pivotal first five-eighth position with influential playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett departing to Japan.
Robertson will, though, retain his inherent traits that long enshrined the Crusaders as the Super Rugby benchmark.
Central to that sustained success is the wraparound symbolism he designs to create a greater purpose to campaigns. Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle victory against George Foreman is the most well-known theme Robertson adopted in his maiden season leading the Crusaders which culminated with capturing their first title in nine years.
All Blacks and Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor treasured that breakthrough triumph in Johannesburg and after 11 years playing for Robertson, he knows him well.
“He’s definitely a unique character. The whole of New Zealand is aware of his personality. It’s awesome the way he approaches things,” Taylor said. “There’s no hiding from the fact that what he brings to the environment is special.
“The thing he drives the most is the culture. He loves having themes involved each year. He demands a lot from us players but also the wider staff, board, everyone. That’s a real asset he has. The vision is seen by everyone not just the team which goes a long way to getting everything right for us to be successful.
“Coaches don’t always get it right. There’s times when you need to check in and have those conversations. The great thing about our environment is we’ve got senior players who are happy to do that and he listens, digests and reacts. That’s a credit to him.”
Over the next seven months, before Robertson’s delayed start date begins, New Zealand Rugby must manage an awkward transition phase and confront soured relationships with the existing All Blacks coaching team.
Foster opted not to reapply for his job after repeatedly criticising the decision to appoint the next All Blacks coach before the World Cup, suggesting it created an unnecessary distraction that would unsettle their quest to claim the pinnacle crown.
While Robertson’s appointment over former Highlanders turned Japan coach Jamie Joseph was met with widespread approval in New Zealand, the backdrop to his arrival will inevitably be shaped by the All Blacks’ World Cup performance.
Such an unparalleled scenario is but one engrossing element in Robertson’s imminent accession to the All Blacks throne.